“A Million Dollar Deal”
It’s been almost 50 years since the Cincinnati Reds dealt Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles. Here’s an article I wrote almost seven years ago that examines that historic trade.
December 9, 1965: Reds right fielder Frank Robinson to the Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson.
When Cincinnati Reds owner Bill DeWitt sent star outfielder Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles on December 9, 1965 for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and rookie outfielder Dick Simpson, he referred to the trade as “a million dollar deal.” Robinson, he estimated, was worth $500,000; the three players he received in the deal were worth $500,000. More than 40 years later, it’s clear that DeWitt got 10 cents on the dollar.
At the time of the trade, Robinson was a bona fide star; a six-time All-Star who had won the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award in 1956, then copped his first Most Valuable Player Award in 1961 at the age of 25. He was so highly regarded that he finished among the top 10 in MVP voting in six of his first 10 years in the league and landed among the top 20 in nine of those seasons. From his rookie year until the time he was traded, Robinson ranked behind only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in most offensive categories and was one of only three National Leaguers with 1,000 runs scored and 3,000 total bases.
Despite having turned 30 years old only three months before the trade, he was considered by DeWitt to be an “old 30.” It was an odd statement considering Robinson had just batted .296 with 33 homers and 113 RBIs in 156 games while fielding at a .990 clip in right field. DeWitt appeared to be following the advice of Branch Rickey, who once insisted that it’s better to trade a player a year too soon than a year too late. But Sid Ziff of the Los Angeles Times reported that most baseball men believed DeWitt made the deal to get out from under Robinson’s contract, which was believed to be worth between $55,000 and $70,000.
In Pappas, Baldschun and Simpson, DeWitt was certainly getting younger and cheaper players. Pappas was 26 years old and was making approximately $30,000. Baldschun was 29 and most certainly making less than Pappas and Simpson was only 22 and more than likely making the major league minimum, which at the time was $6,000. Assuming Baldschun was making half of what Pappas made, the three new Reds combined were barely within sniffing distance of Robinson’s salary.
But they were a talented bunch. Two of them, Pappas and Baldschun, had enjoyed major league success. Pappas joined the Orioles right out of high school in 1957 and earned a spot in the rotation in 1958. He went 110-74 with a 3.24 ERA in his nine seasons with Baltimore, won as many as 15 games four times and was a three-time All-Star. He went 13-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 1965 and led the Orioles in starts, complete games and shutouts.
Baldschun, who’d been acquired from the Phillies three days before being sent to Cincinnati, was a workhorse reliever who’d appeared in more games from 1961 to 1965 than any other National League pitcher. He finished in the top five in saves every year from 1962 to 1964 and only Ron Perranoski and Lindy McDaniel saved more games in that span. He struggled in 1965, though, going 5-8 with six saves and a 3.82 ERA in 99 innings.
Simpson was a “can’t-miss” prospect who was so impressive in the minors he was being compared to Ernie Banks. He led the Western Carolina League with 15 home runs as an 18-year-old rookie in 1961, then followed that up by batting .315 with 42 homers and 113 RBIs as a 19-year-old in the California League in 1962. He made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Angels on September 21, 1962 and hit .250/.400/.375 in eight at-bats. He was touted as an American League Rookie of the Year candidate going into 1963, but he spent the year with the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League instead and struggled to hit .232 with only seven homers. He hit .243 with 16 homers for Hawaii in 1964, then enjoyed his best all-around season in 1965 when he batted .301 with 24 homers and 79 RBIs and stole 29 bases with Seattle of the P.C.L.
Unfortunately Simpson couldn’t carry his minor league success to the majorsâ€”he batted .140/.259/.280 in 21 games with the Angels in 1964, then hit .222/.267/.259 in eight games in 1965. He also had a propensity for striking out, whiffing once every 3.69 at-bats in his minor league career and once every 3.26 ABs in his first three cups of coffee in the majors.
Like Simpson, Robinson was a minor league star who began his professional career as a teenager. In 1953, the 17-year-old Robinson batted .348 with 17 homers and 83 RBIs in only 72 games for Ogden of the Pioneer League. He then hit .336 with 25 homers and 110 RBIs for Columbia of the South Atlantic League in 1954 and set a team record for homers when he belted his 18th on July 19, eclipsing the old mark held by Clyde Volmer. For his efforts he was named to the Sally League All-Star team. His production dropped off a bit in 1955 as he batted .263 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs, but that was due to a sore arm he developed early in the season. In fact it was his arm that kept him from becoming the Reds left fielder in 1955.
“You could see the arm swell up right in front of your eyes,” recounted Columbia manager Ernie White. “Near the shoulder it got as big as a watermelon. The kid couldn’t put on a jacket, there was so much swelling.” The pain in Robinson’s shoulder finally subsided with a month and a half left in the season and the slugger responded by belting 10 homers in the last month to lead Columbia from an eight game deficit to the Sally League pennant.
Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbets called Robinson “one of the finest young hitters” he’d ever seen and vowed that if Robinson could make the throw from left field to second base, he’d be the Reds’ starting left fielder in 1956. True to his word, Tebbets inserted Robinson into left field in 1956 and had him batting seventh. “He’ll do alright if you fellows don’t try to make him a superman,” Tebbets told reporters. “As long as you don’t expect him to take the league apart, he’ll fit the bill. Give him a chance and I think he’ll be a whale of a ballplayer.”
After only a handful of games, Tebbets moved Robinson to the #2 spot in the order behind second baseman Johnny Temple and the rookie sensation took off from there. He batted .290 with 38 homers and 83 RBIs and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award, copping every available vote. He tied the record for most home runs in a season by a rookie, matching Wally Berger’s 1930 mark, made the All-Star team and finished seventh in MVP voting.
He made the All-Star team again in 1957 and finished ninth in MVP voting, hit 31 homers and drove in 83 runs in 1958, and recorded his first 100-RBI season in 1959 when he knocked in 125 runs. He belted 31 homers and drove in 83 runs again in 1960, then won his first MVP Award in 1961 when he batted .323 with 37 homers and 124 RBIs and led the Reds to their first National League pennant in 20 years. The Reds lost the World Series to the Yankees in five games and Robinson went only 3-for-15, but all three hits went for extra bases and he slugged .533.
He followed up his MVP season with an even better one as he batted a career high .342 with 39 homers and 136 RBIs in 1962, and established career bests in seven offensive categories. He became only the fourth National Leaguer in history to hit better than .340 with as many as 39 home runs and 136 RBIs in a single season and was the first to do it since Hack Wilson and Chuck Klein accomplished the feat in 1930 (Rogers Hornsby did it three times in his career and Wilson and Klein did it twice each).
Still he finished fourth in MVP balloting, behind Maury Wills, Willie Mays and Tommy Davis (the voting was a joke; using Win Shares as a measure, Wills wasn’t even the best player on his own team. That mantle belongs to Davis, who recorded 36 Win Shares to Wills’ 32. Mays and Robinson recorded 41 Win Shares each. Using Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) scores from Baseball Prospectus, Mays, with a WARP of 12.8 should have won the MVP, with Robinson, at 12.3, a close second. Davis scored a 9.6 and Wills scored a 9.3. Mays played for the N.L. pennant-winning Giants, which should have given voters even more reason to vote for him, but Wills stole 104 bases and broke Ty Cobb’s record that had stood since 1915. Apparently voters were so enamored with the stolen base, they gave the award to the least deserving of the four. Oh yeah, Hank Aaron also had more Win Shares and a better WARP score than Wills).
Despite his success in 1961 and ’62, Robinson’s name was mentioned among those who were on the trading block that winter and he told reporters he’d welcome a deal if he wasn’t offered a substantial raise in pay by the Reds. He’d signed a $55,000 contract prior to the 1962 season and he expected a salary boost in the wake of his fantastic campaign.
The Reds, indeed, offered him more money for the 1963 season, but only $5,000 more. It was reported on February 7, 1963 that his new contract called for $60,000, making him the highest paid player in the history of the franchise, a distinction he’d already held. Still, Robinson signed the deal and went about his business. He suffered through an injury-marred 1963 season and batted just .259 with 21 homers and 91 RBIs. He’d never hit so low nor hit so few homers to that point in his career and he was forced to take a $5,000 pay cut after the season.
He rebounded in 1964 and hit .306 with 29 homers and 96 RBIs and finished fourth in MVP balloting for the second time in three years. Again the Reds offered him $55,000 and again Robinson signed the deal and insisted he was satisfied. He enjoyed his best season in four years in 1965, made his sixth N.L. All-Star team and finished 18th in MVP voting.
The Reds began the 1965 offseason by firing manager Dick Sisler and replacing him with Don Heffner. Sisler had taken over for Fred Hutchinson, who was dying of lung cancer, in mid-August 1964 and over the final third of the season led Cincinnati from third place to a second-place tie with the Philadelphia Phillies. Hutchinson resigned in October (he died less than a month later) and Sisler was hired to manage the Reds in 1965. When he led the Reds to a disappointing fourth-place finish, he was fired in favor of Heffner.
Heffner had gotten his first managerial job in 1947 when DeWitt, then vice president and general manager of the St. Louis Browns, hired Heffner to manage the Aberdeen, South Dakota club of the Class C Northern League. Heffner led the Pheasants to an 82-36 record in his first season as skipper. DeWitt and Heffner were reunited in 1962 when DeWitt tabbed Heffner to manage the then Triple-A San Diego Padres. Again Heffner was a success, leading the Padres to a 93-61 mark and a 12-game cushion over second place Tacoma and Salt Lake City.
Four days after Heffner’s hiring, Leonard Koppett wrote in the New York Times, “Heffner is a sound enough baseball man, and handled many of the present Reds in the farm systemâ€”but there’s a whole pitching staff to be straightened out and a history of inconsistency by Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson.”
The Reds’ pitchers finished ninth in ERA in a 10-team league and though they led the N.L. in strikeouts, they also walked more batters than any team in the senior circuit. Koppett’s assessment of Pinson was right onâ€”his OPS+ from 1958, his rookie season, to 1965 was on a roller coaster: 89, 128, 118, 130, 114, 142, 110, 127. But Robinson, with the exception of two seasons, was as steady and productive as any hitter the National League.
Still the Reds surprised the baseball establishment when they offered up Robinson as trade bait in December 1965. On December 1 the Los Angeles Times reported that DeWitt offered Robinson to the Astros for 23-year-old outfielder Jimmy Wynn and 19-year-old pitcher Larry Dierker. Astros general manager Paul Richards balked and countered with a package that included pitcher Turk Farrell, a 31-year-old 10-year veteran, and 27-year-old third baseman Bob Aspromonte. DeWitt rejected the offer.
That same day, Koppett reported that the Reds were working on a deal that would send pitcher Jim O’Toole to the Yankees for hurler Jim Bouton. Both were former All-Stars who’d suffered monumental collapses in 1965, O’Toole having gone from 17 wins in 1964 to three in 1965, and Bouton having gone from 18 to four. He also reported that Cincinnati’s talks with Houston included reliever Claude Raymond (Richards rejected a Wynn/Raymond-for-Robinson deal as well) and that the Yankees would be willing to offer first baseman Joe Pepitone straight up for Robinson.
Pepitone showed great promise when he belted 27 homers at the age of 22 in 1963, his first full season, then followed it up with a 28-homer, 100-RBI campaign in 1964. But he batted only .247 with 18 homers and 62 RBIs in 1965 and Yankees management was unsatisfied with his overall performance. They were also unhappy with his lifestyle. “Pep, by the way, had a recent father-son talk with Ralph Houk,” wrote Dick Young in The Sporting News. “In effect, the Yankee G.M. told him: ‘Change your way of living or your gone.’ Joe isn’t a drinker. He simply likes the world after dark.”
Despite all the talk, The Sporting News reported that DeWitt wasn’t planning on making any “earth-shaking” deals at the winter meetings. He also made some interesting comments that he would contradict only days later. “Why, you hear talk that Joey Jay is washed up,” DeWitt said about his starting pitcher. “He just turned 30 in August.” About his bullpen, the Reds owner said, “Any relief pitcher you acquire is a risk. How many put together two or three good years in a row?”
Ironically, three days after his remarks hit newsstands, DeWitt traded Robinson, who, at an “old 30,” was actually two weeks younger than Jay, for Pappas, Simpson and Baldschun, a relief pitcher who’d already enjoyed his “two or three good years in a row.”
Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times called the deal, “Frank Robinson for a strike-out hitter, a bases-on-balls pitcher, and a guy whose main contribution to the game last year was word games in the bullpen.”
Orioles G.M. Lee MacPhail laid the groundwork for the deal before he left the team to work in the commissioner’s office, but he left the final say to Harry Dalton, who had only recently been promoted to his position of Director of Player Personnel (when MacPhail resigned, the Orioles abolished the position of general manager and divided his responsibilities among Dalton, Frank Cashen and Jack Dunn, but, title or no, Dalton was effectively the general manager).
Dalton didn’t wait long to endear himself to Orioles faithful. Seven days before the Robinson deal, he sent 32-year-old first baseman Norm Siebern to the Angels for Simpson. Four days later he sent nine-year veteran outfielder Jackie Brandt and highly-touted southpaw Darold Knowles to the Phillies for Baldschun.
When the Reds inquired about Pappas and 21-year-old outfielder Curt Blefary, who’d just won the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award, the Orioles balked, then countered with the package that was eventually accepted by the Reds.
The media immediately questioned the deal. Bob Addie of the Washington Post wondered if there was a personality clash with Robinson and asked, “How can you get rid of a guy who hits 33 homers and drives in 113 runs?” Earl Lawson wrote in The Sporting News, “DeWitt’s willingness to swap Robinson had other clubs wondering whether he knew something about the Red slugger they didn’t know. Is Robinson alright? Is he physically sound?”
Ed Rumill of the Christian Science Monitor stated the obvious. “…the Baltimore club could be much improved with the talents of Frank Robinson in their lineup most every day…the former Cincinnati star is well equipped to give the O’s offense a tremendous lift.” The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich opined that the trade was a “service to the American League, which is woefully short of interesting ball players. Robinson, the slasher, brings to the AL the best pair of hitting wrists since Ted Williams called it a career.” Dodgers G.M. Buzzie Bavasi was equally happy to see Robinson land in the junior circuit. “We had to face Robinson’s bat 15 to 18 games a season,” said the Dodgers exec. “With him gone we can pitch around Pinson, [Deron] Johnson and those other guys.”
When asked why he decided to trade his star outfielder, DeWitt responded, “A top-flight starter and a top-flight relief hurler was just too attractive a package to turn down.” The Orioles were a bit more pragmatic. “The prime reason we made the trade was because it gives us strength where we need it mostâ€”in the outfield,” explained Cashen. “But it’s no secret that we’re trying to change our image, to be a more exciting club, to win more friends in the Negro community.”
The Sporting News’ Doug Brown explained the Orioles’ plans further. “In the past, the Orioles have been accused of prejudice. In an attempt to erase that erroneous impression, they plan to add ticket outlets in the Negro community and to hire some Negro employees.” Robinson was used to being the “Negro” on his team or one of a handful of “Negroes.” In 1953 Oscar Ruhl reported in The Sporting News that the Reds had “Ten Negroes” in their farm system. A year later, Robinson was listed as one of three “Negroes” on the Columbia squad.
He was typically described as the “Negro outfielder” or “Negro first baseman.” More than a decade later he was expected to be the Negro superstar of the Baltimore Orioles. “More than one-third of the population of the city of Baltimore is Negro and, if Robinson doesn’t bring these folks to the park, nothing will,” wrote Brown.
Robinson had the last word on the deal. “It’s a challenge,” he admitted. “I’ll be in a strange league with a strange team. But I have faced challenges before and have overcome them. I’ll overcome this one.”
He certainly did. In his first season with the Orioles, Robinson belted a career high 49 home runs, drove in 122 runs and batted .316. He won the Triple Crown, earned all 20 first place votes in the MVP balloting en route to a landslide victory over teammates Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell, led the Orioles to their first American League Pennant since the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1954, and slugged .857 in their four-game sweep over the Dodgers in the World Series. As it turned out, Buzzie Bavasi wasn’t so lucky after all.
The Reds, on the other hand, went 76-84 and finished in seventh place, their worst showing since 1949. Heffner, who’d insisted after the Robinson trade that defense was the most important part of baseball and that pitching was part of defense, lasted only 83 games into the season and was fired on July 13. Pappas went 12-11 with a career worst 4.29 ERA, which wasn’t surprising considering he admitted to Reds officials that he’d injured his arm while warming up for the 1965 All-Star game and didn’t fully recover until the end of the season. Secondly, he was pitching in a tougher league (the National League was 5% more difficult than the AL in 1966) and he pitched more than half his games at Crosley Field, which had a park factor of 109 as opposed to Memorial Stadium’s 98.
Baldschun ended up being a total bust as he went 1-5 with no saves and a 5.49 ERA in 42 appearances. He blew a save in the first game of the season, allowing two runs on three hits and a walk in only a third of an inning, and ruined a fantastic outing by Sammy Ellis. It was mostly downhill from there, although he was very good in July and August.
Simpson appeared in 92 games, batted only 84 times and hit .232 with four homers and 14 RBIs. He was stuck behind Pinson, Johnson and Tommy Harper in the pecking order and while he actually posted a better OPS+ than Harper, Harper was a much better outfielder than Simpson and it wasn’t even close. Harper fielded at a .996 clip and had a league average range factor; Simpson fielded at a .921 clip and his range factor was a laughable 0.51. Add in the fact that Simpson fanned once every 2.6 at-bats and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t given a greater opportunity to play.
The 1966 season would prove to be Robinson’s finest, but he gave the Orioles six productive years, five of which were outstanding (three of those could be considered MVP-type seasons based on Win Shares and one actually was). During those six seasons, Baltimore won four American League pennants and two World Series titles. Belying Leonard Koppett’s claim that Robinson was plagued by a history of inconsistency is the fact that in his six years with the Orioles, Robinson recorded an OPS of .944, while in his 10 seasons with the Reds, he recorded an OPS of .943.
The last five years of his career were spent with the Dodgers, Angels and Indians where he completed a resume that featured 586 career home runs, 2,943 hits and more than 1,800 runs scored and driven in.
Pappas spent less than 2 1/2 seasons with the Reds before he was traded to the Atlanta Braves on June 11, 1968. He went 30-29 with a 4.04 ERA in Cincinnati, then went 69-61 with a 3.35 ERA over the last six years of his career, most of which was spent with the Chicago Cubs. He won 17 games in both 1971 and ’72 for the Cubs, tossed a no-hitter against the Padres on September 2, 1972, and finished ninth in Cy Young Award voting that year. He slumped to a 7-12 record in 1973 and retired at the age of 34 with a career mark of 209-164 and an ERA of 3.40.
Baldschun appeared in only nine games for the Reds in 1967 and spent most of the season with Buffalo of the International League. He pitched for Indianapolis of the Pacific Coast League in 1968, was released by the Reds prior to the 1969 season and signed with the San Diego Padres. He went 7-2 with a 4.79 ERA for the Padres in ’69, then allowed 15 runs in 13 1/3 innings in 1970 before he was released again. At the age of 33 his major league career was over.
Simpson never lived up to the hype. He spent seven years in the majorsâ€”only two with the Redsâ€”but never appeared in more than 92 games in any one season. In fact, he accumulated just enough playing time in his career to record one full season’s worth of stats and they weren’t good. In 518 career at-bats he accumulated 107 hits, 19 doubles, two triples, 15 home runs, 56 RBIs, 94 runs, 10 stolen bases, 64 walks and 174 strikeouts. He batted .207/.299/.338. He played for the Yankees and Seattle Pilots in 1969, then was traded to the Giants in the offseason for pitcher Bob Bolin. He was sent back to the Pacific Coast League and never appeared in a major league uniform again.
Bill DeWitt refused to comment on the Robinson trade when asked about it just after the Orioles clinched the 1966 American League pennant. He insisted the Reds would not shy away from the trade market during the winter meetings, however, and that he was hellbent on strengthening the pitching staff. He sold the Reds to a group of Cincinnati investors soon after.
The Reds actually recovered quite nicely from the trade. They finished under .500 in 1966, but won 87, 83, and 89 games under manager Dave Bristol from 1967 to 1969 and never placed lower than fourth. In 1969 they took third and finished only four games behind the division-winning Braves. Then they dominated the league in the ’70s under skipper Sparky Anderson (and John McNamara), winning six division titles, four pennants and two world championships. It wasn’t until 1982 that they had a winning percentage lower than the one they posted immediately after the trade.
But one can’t help but wonder how much more dominant the “Big Red Machine” would have been with Frank Robinson on the squad.